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In Ohio ad wars, the Democrats are on top

by Keenan Steiner and Jake Harper

In Ohio, which is playing host to both presidential campaigns today, Democrats appear to be pulling ahead in the money race -- and in the polls -- an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation has found.

With President Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, barnstorming the state Wednesday, Sunlight decided to take a look at how their campaigns, and other candidates in the critical swing state, are faring. It looks like the Democrats have the advantage so far, when ad spending by outside groups and the candidates’ campaigns are weighed together. Because the Federal Election Commission does not require groups or campaigns playing in the presidential election to categorize their spending by state, Sunlight examined television ad spending in Ohio to determine who has the edge. 

UPDATE Sept. 26 5:30 p.m.: While publicly available information had spending against Sen. Sherrod Brown at $4.7 million, his campaign contacted the Sunlight Foundation to argue that the figure grossly understated actual spending against the senator. The campaign puts outside spending against Brown close at more than $19.6 million for ads that have run so far. This could be the case, since not all outside groups have to document all of their political spending with the Federal Election Commission but ad buy information is available at local television stations. So we asked Brown's opponent, Republican Josh Mandel, if he's tracking ad spending against his campaign. According to a document provided by the Mandel campaign, total spending against Brown is set to reach $31.3 million by the end of the election, compared to $24.5 milion against Mandel. This is just another argument for the work that the Sunlight Foundation and its partner, Free Press, are doing to bridge the gaps in available information about spending on this year's political campaign. We hope to have a searchable, sortable database of political ad buys on line soon and will be looking for your help to make it better. For more information, check back with our Political Ad Sleuth project!

Among the nation's 11 television markets that have seen the most presidential campaign advertising, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Ohio has three -- more than any other state. From April 25 to Sept. 8, says Wesleyan, which uses private data to track ad buys, Cleveland saw more than 27,000 campaign spots from April 25 to Sept. 8, second only to Las Vegas. Ohio's other two markets in the top 11 are Columbus and Cincinnati.

Ohio has seen more spending by outside groups than any other state in the country but Florida, according to Sunlight's independent expenditure tracker, Follow the Unlimited Money. The breakdown:

  • $11.8 million has been dumped into the hotly-contested Senate race (the fourth most expensive Senate race in the nation);
  • $3.8 million is being poured into House races;
  • $5.7 million was spent during the expensive March 6 GOP presidential primary 

It’s not hard to figure out the reason for the intense focus on the Buckeye State: No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio, which voted twice for George W. Bush but voted for Obama over the 2008 Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.  Romney’s two-day tour of the state comes at somewhat of a low point for him. A new Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS News Poll released this morning, showed the president leading his GOP rival 53-43, the biggest margin since the poll of Ohio's likely voters began on Sept. 26.

There is also new data to look at – the Federal Communications Commission’s ad buys from TV stations affiliated with the nation's top four broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- in the nation’s 50 biggest markets became available over the Internet on Aug. 2 thanks to a new rule. Though incomplete and hard to sift through (something the Sunlight Foundation, along with Free Press, is hoping to fix), that data helps us see exactly how much is being spent in those races. Ohio also makes the case for broadening the reach of the FCC's rule: Toledo, a crucial spot of northern Ohio, one of the top 20 markets in terms advertising for the presidential race, is left off the grid because its not in the top 50 in terms of audience.

From what we can see however, the Obama camp has been out-airing the Romney campaign significantly in the past two months in the Buckeye State. In September, Obama has been on the air 2.6 times as much, according to an analysis of television ad buys by Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post.

The much talked-out coffers of outside spending groups on the right do not appear to be doing enough to balance out Obama’s spending edge. Zooming in on just two TV stations in the state’s biggest market, Cleveland, Democratic outside money is not far behind Republican groups since the Democratic convention.

At the FOX and NBC affiliates in Cleveland, Priorities USA Action, a group founded by two former Obama staffers, has dropped $367,100 since the start of the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 4. By contrast, three big GOP groups playing the presidential race over the same period, American Crossroads, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Americans for Prosperity have spent $589,400 on ads. But the RJC ad buy is spread out, running from mid-September to mid-October.

Crossroads GPS, the sister nonprofit to American Crossroads, may also be dropping anti-Obama ads at those Cleveland stations this month but it’s hard to know for sure because the group has also aired spots against Brown, and the television station forms do not include information about whom the ad opposes or supports. Follow the Unlimited Money shows that Crossroads GPS has spent $2.1 million opposing Brown since the end of the Democratic convention, and $7.1 million opposing Obama, but the group is not required to report the states where it is spending in the presidential race. 

Two big GOP outside groups have been relatively quiet at the two Cleveland stations of late. The conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity was on the air in August and early September and the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, had a presence in August, but both dropped off the airwaves since then.

Priorities USA Action and the Obama camp have also reserved ad time every week at NBC Cleveland through the Nov. 6 election while the Romney camp and the other Republican outside groups have taken a wait-and-see approach, except for the Republican Jewish Coalition, a review of TV ad buys shows.

Senate Race

Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is one of the top targets for Republicans who want to take control of the Senate. But a Washington Post poll released Tuesday gave Brown a 12-point edge over the GOP challenger Josh Mandel. Brown has also raised $15 million compared Mandel's $10 million. 

Brown is also winning the battle of outside money—for now, with almost $6 million supporting Brown or opposing Mandel, while the pro-Mandel forces have spent around $4.7 million. Overall in the race, nearly $12 million has poured in from groups like left-leaning Majority PAC and GOP-aligned groups Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Almost half of the total outside spending has been spent since the beginning of September, with some of the largest expenditures -- more than $1 million each -- coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS, and the National Education Association Fund, the political arm of the teachers' union.  

House races

Ohio's newly-drawn 16th Congressional District is hosting a redistricting matchup between two incumbents: Freshman Republican Rep. Jim Renacci and four-term Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton. While Renacci has raised about $600,000 more than his opponent, that cash reserve may not be enough. Heading into the homestretch of the tossup race, Renacci finds himself badly outmanned over the airwaves.

According Sunlight's Follow the Unlimited Money, nine groups have dropped close to $1.4 million in support of Sutton, with the largest expenditures coming from House Majority PAC, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (see the ad below) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.


Among outside groups, only the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent any money to support Renacci, and that was in Feburary before the primary. But the group has not come to his aid in the general election yet.

An ad from the DCCC drew some fire from the Renacci camp. Attorney Mark Koberna earlier this month sent a letter, which describes claims in the ad as "ridiculous" and "blatantly false", to Cleveland television station WKYC demanding that they remove the ad. WKYC refused to tell Sunlight whether the ad was pulled.

The other race drawing a lot of financial attention is in Ohio's 6th Congressional District, where former Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson is back to challenge Republican freshman Rep. Bill Johnson for the seat that Johnson took from Wilson two years ago. 

Outside the campaigns, so far it's a battle of House Majority PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The total outside spending favors Wilson ($570,000 opposing Johnson versus $370,000 opposing Wilson), but his official campaign is not faring as well. Wilson has raised less than half the amount of Johnson and has only about $500,000 left in the bank, compared to Johnson's $930,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

 

Update, 9/26/2012, 2:18 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that the Quinnipiac poll of likely voters started in September, not last November.

(Illustration: Ali Felski)